On September the first, Nancy Barrington was buried. Her husband Frank made a small scene at the funeral. Thinking Father Oliver was going on a bit windy, Frank asked him to hurry things along. When Oliver protested, Frank, sixty-six years old, rose and said he’d bury his wife himself. The three Barrington children stopped their father from doing this. Oliver handled the situation as calmly and as kindly as he could.
On September the sixth, the three Barrington children, Jane, Joe, and Julie, informed their father they’d bought the plot next to Mom’s. Bought it for him.
On October the fifth, Frank Barrington drove his Dodge Aspen out to Marigold Cemetery. In the truck bed was a foldout lawn chair, a small camping stove, a one man canvas tent, a box of matches, a two-battery flashlight, a two-battery AM radio, some light bedding, a suitcase half-full of clothes, and a box of groceries and beer.
He set up camp on the plot of untouched earth beside his wife’s grave.
He started living on it.
Ron Geary was the daytime groundskeeper for Marigold Cemetery. He was accustomed to finding things out of sorts. Ferris, who worked the night shift, spent more time watching television than he did checking the grounds and was even known to leave a few empty beer cans in the office. Beer and a graveyard. Geary didn’t know why, but the combination didn’t sit well with him. Didn’t feel like the right place to knock one back. And yet, nothing Ferris ever did could prepare Geary for what he found the morning of October the sixth.
He’d pulled into the employee lot, radio low, always respecting the grounds. He’d entered the office and cleaned up a sticky spill on the floor near the desk (looked like soda), emptied the trash, opened the blinds to the office windows, and phoned Allan Dirks, the manager of Marigold Cemetery. He let Allan know everything was fine. After hanging up, Geary chance glanced out the window and saw, far in the distance, a tent, in what looked like lot 37.
Goddammit, Ferris, he thought, exiting the office. He guessed the no good night watchman had let in a woman, camped out for the night, possibly they were both asleep inside, sleeping off some beer.
The closer Geary got, the quicker he recognized the exact plot in question. Just a month ago Nancy Barrington had been buried in plot 4, lot 37. The tent looked to be on plot 3, lot 37. Unused. Or, as Allan often said, not used yet. Geary hiked up his work pants by his belt loops and hurried his walk.
Someone was in the tent. The front flap was coming down.
Geary, anxious, stopped.
The first name that passed through Geary’s head was Father Oliver. He wasn’t sure why exactly, but maybe a priest sleeping on a grave made more sense than most. But the tousled silver hair that emerged from the tent first didn’t belong to Oliver. And the cocky grimace beneath it gave the identity of the perpetrator away.
“Mister Barrington!” Geary called, trotting now toward. “Whatever are you doing?”
“Waking up,” Frank said, his voice as gravely as the path. Geary noticed coffee cooking on a small stove.
“You moving in?” Geary asked.
Frank kneeled by the stove and rose with a mugful.
“Want some?” he gestured toward Geary and because of how comfortable Frank behaved, how unbothered and direct he was, Geary wondered if maybe he was forgetting something himself. Perhaps this kind of thing happened all the time?
“No thank you, Mister Barrington. But I need to ask you again… what are you doing here?”
Barrington didn’t hesitate.
“This is my land,” he offered. “The kids done bought it for me.”
Geary looked down to the plot, to the tombstone etched with NANCY BARRINGTON.
“Oh boy, Mister Barrington. I’m afraid you might’ve taken that too literally. When you’re kids buy you a plot, its supposed to be-”
“For when I die. That about it?”
“That’s about it, yeah.”
“But it’s mine, aint it?”
Geary hadn’t ever thought about it like that before.
“Well, I suppose it is, Mister Barrington. But–”
“That’s how I seen it, too.”
Geary was in a bind. He’d started the conversation amiably and wasn’t sure how to change that now.
“Allan Dirks isn’t going to be none too happy about this, Frank.”
“Who the hell is that?”
“The rightful manager of Marigold Cemetery.”
“Oh? Tell him to stop selling plots of land if he don’t want people living in his graveyard.”
“Well, I just might,” Geary said. “I just might have to.”
Geary made to leave.
“You ever notice how the birds out here sound more respectful than the ones outside your window?”
Geary tilted his head to the trees, considered this.
“I have noticed that, yes.”
“It’s a neat thing. One of those corners of the universe.”
“It is,” Geary said.
Then he was taking the path, back to the office, back to the phone.
Allan Dirks phoned Father Oliver. The cemetery manager asked the priest to speak to Frank Barrington about this directly.
We’ve already told him that he’s got to leave.
And he didn’t do so?
He says it’s his land. Says he owns it.
Ah, and so he does. I’ll speak with him.
Oliver arrived at Marigold cemetery in the early evening hours. The sky was overcast. His trademark dark spectacles framed his soft eyes. He adjusted his collar and flattened his black thinning hair, attempting to protect it from ruffling in the wind.
Even if Father Oliver hadn’t presided over the funeral of Nancy Barrington, it wouldn’t have been difficult to locate Frank on the grounds.
Oliver approached slow, rehearsed what he might say.
Forty feet off Oliver heard the static voices coming from the small AM radio situated upon the grave. Sports talk, most likely. Frank sat on a rainbow lawn-chair, sunglasses blocking his eyes.
“Evening, Barrington,” Oliver said, arriving at the foot of the plot. The priest spotted open packages of food near the door of the small nylon tent. “How do you do?”
“I’m well, Oliver.”
The priest smiled.
“Didn’t know if your eyes were open ‘hind those glasses.”
“Oh, I seen you coming.”
Oliver adjusted his collar. Flattened his hair. This was to be delicate.
“I hear you’ve decided to take up residence here? At Marigold Cemetery of all places.”
“The kids decided it. But I’m following up on that, yes.”
“I see. But your children were only hoping to ensure you’d be buried beside your wife. Lovers often make such arrangements.”
“I didn’t ask for a plot,” Frank said. “But I appreciate it, in kind.”
Oliver scanned the grounds of Marigold. Fifty yards off a well-dressed couple knelt to place flowers upon a stone.
“You see that couple there?” Oliver asked, gesturing.
The priest clasped his heavy hands and smiled.
“You see, Frank, a nice young couple like that… they find sanctity in a place like this. They’ve come here for a very specific purpose. That is to grieve. And, in turn, to heal. Now, whereas you do have rights, as a man, as a citizen, a right to your own subjectivity, something like this,” he fanned his hands toward Frank’s things, “might rightly ruin their experience.”
Frank looked to the couple again.
“That’s not doing it, Father.”
“You see, I seen so many couples come and go, so many friends become strangers, that I no longer pretend to know how someone else might interpret the things I do or don’t do.”
“Not gonna budge are you, Frank.”
“This chair, this sun, this land feels good. I daresay I’m home.”
The two remained quiet until Oliver felt the need to say something.
“Well, I’m not the one you’re gonna to have to worry about, Frank. Sheriff Howard will be out here soon enough. And I imagine he’ll have a different way of putting it.”
“Dad,” Jane said. “What are you doing?”
Frank sipped his beer.
“This is… insane,” Julie said. “Not to mention downright embarrassing.”
“Embarrassing? You three should be proud of me.”
“Proud?’ Joe asked.
“I’m resourceful. Creative too. This is my land after all.”
The siblings waited, as if Frank might suddenly tell them he’d been joking here. But when that moment didn’t come, Jane spoke first.
“Sheriff Howard called today. Told me to come get you. Told me they’re going to arrest you if you don’t move.”
“Jane Barrington,” Frank was looking her directly in the eye. His heavy silver eyebrows arched. “You’re my oldest. I’m very proud of you.”
“We’ll be back, Dad,” Jane said.
“Where you going now?”
“We’ll be back.”
Frank lit his lantern and placed it at the head of the plot. He turned the radio to the classical station and rose, the moon high above him.
He retrieved a notebook from the tent and set to writing.
Instructions for my burial:
Arms by my side; not crossed upon my chest. I’m no mummy.
The graveyard was much cooler at night and Frank wore a long-sleeved button-down shirt. His right arm softly rubbed against the paper as he wrote.
He started to draw a picture of a dead man, flat in his casket, an aerial view. Eyes still open, arms at his sides, adorned in suit and tie.
He looked to Nancy’s tombstone.
“Together yet,” he said.
A cracking sound and Frank looked up to see a silhouette approaching. He waited, quietly, as the grainy violins on the AM radio surged, suggesting something important was on the way.
It was the night watchman. A boy named Ferris.
“I’m working, son.”
“Yeah? What you working on?”
“My last will and testament.”
“That’s cool,” Ferris said. “I hear you’ve got a beer?”
Frank got up and retrieved a beer from the cooler and tossed it to Ferris who had trouble catching it but caught it.
The night watchman popped opened the beer and the snap of it echoed through the graveyard. He sat upon a headstone.
“Helluva chair,” Frank said.
“Helluva bed,” Ferris smiled, nodding to Frank’s tent. “So what you doing out here? Can’t get over your wife’s passing or something like that?”
“Something of that ilk.”
Ferris nodded. Sipped his beer.
“I have things I can’t get over either,” he said, wiping his mouth with the sleeve of his shirt. “But I think that’s alright. I think it’s okay to get stuck under things. Even forever. If you really gave your all to a thing… how are you supposed to get out from under it?”
Frank saw a light in the distance.
“Who’s that?” he asked.
Ferris moved slow, looked.
“Not sure. Geary or Sheriff Howard, I suppose.”
Frank knew Howard the same way everyone else did; citations and tickets, a casual warning pitched from his parked cruiser, the window rolled down, as you passed on foot, walking the sidewalks of town.
Now don’t spit in public, Johnny.
Clean that hair up, Will.
Wait for the walk sign.
You pay for that, Steve?
A bright beam erupted from the darkness.
Ferris hid his beer between his shoes.
“Mister Barrington,” Howard said, his face unseen, hardly even a silhouette beyond the light. “Ferris.”
“Sheriff,” Ferris said, nodding.
“Evening, Sheriff,” Frank said. “Mind dimming the light?”
“I’d like to see what you’ve got out here before I lower my beam, Mister Barrington.”
Howard played the light across the plot. One at a time Frank’s possessions were partially, then fully revealed. The radio. The cooler. A paperback book. Mittens. A cardboard box of canned goods. The open flap of the tent.
Howard paused there, letting the light shine inside.
“Mind if I have a look?” he asked.
“I do,” Frank said.
Ferris shifted uneasily on the headstone.
“And why’s that?” Howard asked.
“This is my land, Sheriff. I suppose you’ll need a warrant to search my things.”
“You don’t own the graveyard,” Howard said. “You must know at least that much about the rules.”
“I own this piece of it. Seems silly to receive property only upon dying.”
“That’s what we call a grave, Mister Barrington.”
“Yes, well I’d like to get a good look at mine first. Make sure it suits me.”
“And what do you think so far? How does it suit you?”
Ferris slowly rose from the headstone. It felt like something bad might break out. The music didn’t help. Rising violins. Mad horns.
“It fits,” Frank said.
“I’m gonna look in the tent now,” the sheriff said.
Ferris heard a faint click and knew what it was before turning to see. He groaned.
“You know the rules,” Frank repeated. “Better than most. Now, I’m liable to shoot a man for breaking into my home.”
Silence from Howard. But only briefly.
“You know I got one of those, too, Mister Barrington. And I’m better with mine.”
“That may be the case, Sheriff Howard, but mine’s already drawn.”
“What I’d planned on arresting you with just got a whole lot worse,” Howard said.
Footsteps, gravel under tennis shoes, feet on the path behind Howard. Voices, too. More lights. Many.
The Sheriff turned to see.
“Who’s here, Ferris?” he asked.
“Friends of yours?”
“No, sir. No idea.”
Frank thought it looked like there could be fifteen people, twenty. He recognized some of the voices.
Howard shined his light on the newcomers and saw a group of familiar faces. Peter from the paper. The kid Andrew Charles from the feed store. Andrew Charles’s two kids, Annie and Billy. Mary Wallace, too. They carried lawn chairs of their own. Sleeping bags. Plastic bags stuffed with snacks.
“We heard Frank Barrington is living on his future grave,” Peter said. “We had to see it for ourselves.”
Howard counted twenty-five heads.
“Go on now,” Howard said. “We’ve got an armed man here. This is a dangerous place to be.”
“Armed man?” Andrew said. “Frank Barrington? Ah shoot, Sheriff, we all know Barrington aint never killed nobody. He’s just protecting his land is all.”
Some laughter. But some gravity, too.
Howard turned to face Barrington.
“You look happy to have an audience.”
“And you look unsure about the law. Unsure if you’re right about whether or not a man owns the plot his family buys him to be buried in.”
Howard stared long into Frank’s eyes.
“I’ll be by again, Mister Barrington.”
“And I’ll see you when you are.”
Ten o’clock the following morning and seventy percent of Marigold lined the path; lawn chairs, fold-out card tables where foursomes played euchre, living room easy chairs, too, chairs that hadn’t seen the sun in forty years. Some brought their own radios, most tuned to the same station, WDRD, giving life to an unnerving echo effect that made it sound as if Dan Shirley was broadcasting from outer space. Kids played catch across other graves, other plots. Hot dogs, burgers, and roasted vegetables gave the gathering a festive street-fair smell. People took photos of Frank Barrington, reclining on his future grave. Young artists drew his likeness in charcoal; even younger artists drew him in chalk on the trees.
“Frank!” Peter from the paper called, notebook in hand. “A question if you will?”
“I’d like to know… do you consider yourself a spokesman for old age and the treatment of seniors?”
“I haven’t been a senior since high school.”
“Damn,” Peter said. “That’s good.”
More people arrived. Some with pets. Dogs tied to the graveyard trees. Cats in laps.
“Your kids are here!” Mary Wallace said and it seemed to strike a musical chord through the gathered crowd. Excitement. Family matters. Drama.
Geary was with them.
“You here to say hi to Mom?’ Frank asked.
“We’re not,” Jane said. “We’re here to take you home, Dad.”
“How is it that I raised such serious children?”
“You do some serious things,” Joe said.
“The police are on their way,” Julie said. “Coming to arrest you. Come on home. It’s gotta be better than jail.”
“They said you pulled a gun on Sheriff Howard,” Joe said.
Frank smiled, misty eyed.
“Dad,” Jane said, “you’ve made a spectacle of yourself.”
Frank, already wearing suit pants, began to slip on his white button down shirt.
“I could tell you that death is the spectacle, Jane, that nobody would find it interesting if I camped out in the parking lot of Paula Grocery. I could tell you that receiving a plot of land and knowing where you’ll be buried is an inner spectacle, brighter than the fireworks on the Fourth of July.”
Peter wrote it all down. Chuck Douglas snapped a photo for the same paper.
Beyond the heads of his children, Frank saw the flashing lights of multiple cruisers. He finished buttoning his shirt. Lifted a tie from the grass at his bare feet.
Sheriff Howard lead the way, papers gripped tight in his left hand.
“Looks like you studied up on the rules,” Frank said, acknowledging the papers.
“That’s correct, Mister Barrington. I did.” In the daylight he looked less authoritative. Looked like a kid in a costume to Frank. “Now, let’s get on with it.”
Most of the Marigold crowd grew quiet.
“Don’t go!” A teenager called.
“This is your land!” A blonde woman hollered.
Frank held up two open palms, silencing the crowd. He reached into his pocket.
“I wouldn’t do that,” Howard said.
But Frank did.
He pulled a padlock from his pocket.
He clicked it closed.
“Kinda sounds like a gun, doesn’t it, Sheriff?” Frank asked. He didn’t seem particularly angry. In fact, his eyes were welling with tears. “This was Nancy’s. She used it to lock up a box that contained all our love letters from our early days. Love letters and news clippings saying what was going on in the world the week we met.” Frank wiped the tears from his eyes. “Nancy I understood that when we met we’d each met just the right person for the other to meet. We understood that people chase their whole lives after love and here we’d found it already.” Jane sniffled. Julie cried. “In those early days we made a pact, you see. We told one another that whoever went first, the other would stay by, keep their body close. Oh, we were young and talking foolishly of course… but,” Frank breathed deep, finished tying his tie. “But there are some things you aren’t supposed to get over.” Frank saw Ferris in the crowd. “There are some things that are too good to let go of and you wouldn’t be you if you let em go.”
“Mister Barrington,” Howard said.
“Can’t you see the man is heartbroken?” Mary Wallace called out.
Frank lifted his suit coat from the grass. He put it on as he lowered himself to his knees. He turned to Nancy’s tombstone.
“You’d be someone else,” he said. “Someone who didn’t know the things you knew, the truths you’d learned.”
He lowered himself onto his side, an arm outstretched, a hand flat against the grass upon Nancy’s grave. A fresher shade of green.
There he died.
And the crowd knew he died and Sheriff Howard knew he died and his children knew he died and Peter wrote it down and Geary and Ferris got shovels and Father Oliver flipped his bible open to the right passage, the one he felt most fitting. It was about love; big love; a love that was bigger than the characters that were in love, a love that marginalized the setting, made any place a good place for love. A love that felt like it had no real and rightful beginning; like it’d just appeared one day, or maybe the characters stepped into it by accident.
A love with no story arc.